Estrangement: When letting go hurts

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Michelle, a mother of three whose two daughters are estranged, said that after four years, everyone else was moving on. “No one wanted to talk about the girls anymore,” she says. “No one seemed to miss them anymore,

Michelle still wanted to hold the good memories and to speak of her daughters as if they would one day return. The people around her had come to an ending point. For her own good, they wanted Michelle to accept the estrangement, too.

“But accepting their estrangement felt like saying good-bye to hope,” says Michelle.

Estrangement: Destinations unknown

estrangement between parents and adult childrenAs a mother who had given her all to her children, Michelle felt that letting go was like abandoning her daughters as well as everything she stood for.

Parents like Michelle may continue to reach out repeatedly despite harsh replies. Or, they cry for days afterward when the only answer is silence. Some may have stopped attempting contact and accept the reality of estrangement “for now.” Yet when faced with the idea that estrangement might be permanent, they fall into depression or describe themselves as “numb.”

“As long as I felt hope, there was a reason to go on,” says Michelle. “Without the belief that the estrangement would one day change, my life seemed to have no destination.”

Before estrangement, there were assumed expectations: marriages, births, and year-to-year traditions that bring families close and connect the generations to the past, the present, and the future. Estrangement disrupts the expected pattern.

estrangement between parents and adult childrenIt’s as if the future is an endless sea, with no shore in sight. Even when other children and family members remain close and loving, estrangement may loom in the present as well as in the past. Or even worse, on the horizon of possibility, placing a pall on relationships with other children.

Estrangement: Does the mourning end?

Maybe it’s you who is done with the sorrow and stress of estrangement, and you want your spouse or other relatives to move on, too. You’re tired of talking about your son or daughter, reliving the pain, the shock, or the disbelief. Or maybe you’re like Michelle, who feels a sort of second abandonment, because no one around her holds out hope.  Perhaps you have come to accept the estrangement but discover a secondary sort of grief in the process.

Wherever you fit, your feelings are not so unusual. It’s okay to feel hurt at the very idea of moving on without your son or daughter or even grandchildren in your life. It’s normal to wish it were different, or to feel a sense of guilt in getting on with your life. It’s not unusual to feel different than your spouse or other relatives do, or to recognize that accepting the reality of estrangement brings its own sorrow.  These types of emotions (and more) are ordinary stops on the estrangement journey.

estrangement between parents and adult childrenIf you’re parked in a place of withdrawal, guilt, shame, anger, sadness or feeling numb, get the support you need. For some, reading and doing the exercises in Done With The Crying has been enough. Others have found that meeting with a therapist provides a safe space to gain perspective. Or they utilize the peer community here, where members understand and empathize.

It’s wise to mourn the loss. It’s fine to mourn the abandonment you may feel when no one around you wants to keep the estrangement alive in the present, too. But you also must recognize that a season of mourning is just that: a season. We are not meant to be forever sad. Even in the uncertainty of estrangement, we have the right to be happy today.

None of this means we must forget our child, the love we once shared, or even give up hope that the love will be restored. But we cannot let estrangement debilitate us.

Tell me something good

In a recent Huffington Post article, I was one of several who spoke positively about talking to yourself. In my book, I tell parents to pay attention to the things they tell themselves. Mindfulness is discussed in the early pages, because being mindful brings awareness of what you think and the words you mutter to yourself and others. When it comes to healing from estrangement, those things matter.

Now more than ever, it’s important to take care of yourself. Falling into a habit of negative thinking and unhelpful self-talk never helps. Neither does catastrophizing or believing that you will “never” get over the pain.

You might as well tell yourself something that helps. Here are a few ideas:

“I was a good parent. One day they will realize that and return to me. So right now, I’m making the most of my life.”

“I can’t watch her right now, but God is.”

“Whether he comes back next week, years from now, or never, if I live well now, I won’t have wasted my life worrying.”

“I wish him well. I wish me well, too.”

“I may not like this, but I can learn to live despite it.”

“When he comes back, he’ll find me happy and strong.”

The truth about reconciling

estrangement between parents and adult childrenWhile we may imagine a happy reunion where everything falls right into place, often there are complications. If you’re in a long-term estrangement, accept the reality, even if it’s with a “for now” mentality. Then concentrate on your health and happiness. In so doing, you will be prepared when (or if) your child wants to reconcile at a future point (if you’re willing).

The truth is, your strength and well-being will be necessary to see any reconciliation through. Strength to help a daughter who desperately wants a relationship but who struggles with an issue you previously knew nothing about. Strength to stand firm and demand equanimity—even when a reconciled relationship feels like it’s going south again. Strength to admit mistakes, yet not forever pay penance or remain in guilt. Strength to forgive. Strength to move away from communication or family patterns that, in the space of estrangement, you may recognize as less than healthy.  Strength to remain true to yourself despite false accusations or baiting. And even the strength to say no, if the reconciliation will not work.

If you have reconciled, will you share your thoughts in my short survey?

Okay with estrangement

As counterintuitive as it may seem, being “okay” with the estrangement can help you prepare for a future reconciliation. You don’t have to give up hope. Just park it on a shelf for the time being. For some, that means keeping a memento in plain sight that allows you to wish your child well despite what’s happened. It could be something like the little wooden bird I wrote about putting out over the holidays. For others, it’s saying “enough” and no longer talking about the estrangement when you drive near a certain area or experience some other emotional trigger (as was written about here). Maybe you need to limit discussing the estrangement to a few minutes a day or relegate it to prayer.

If you’re like Michelle, and want to keep the good memories alive, consider writing them down. Slips of paper with specific memories you can pull from a jar and think about may help you feel connected not only to your memories but to what a good parent you have always been.

Of course, you will need to determine whether you’re at a point where reflecting in this way will be helpful rather than hurtful. For those new to estrangement, recalling happy times may be painful. You may want to consider the articles linked in this one and at the bottom for help that fits where you’re at in the estrangement journey.

estrangement between parents and adult childrenYour turn

What can you tell yourself that’s good? What would you say to Michelle?

Related Reading

Estrangement: What about hope?

Prodigal children: How many adult child return?

Estrangement: Are you an octopus mom?

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One thought on “Estrangement: When letting go hurts

  1. nomoredoormat

    I see myself in this post, especially the part about talking to myself. I do talk to myself. Sometimes it is not helpful as I relive conversations and then tell myself what I should have said, or “that isn’t true” instead of the constant apologizing I did for how they feel. I also talk to myself telling myself I was a great parent, my children wanted for nothing, not emotional support, physical support (housing, bikes, clothes etc) nor financial support (paid for university, their clubs, their travels). I was a single parent and did without so they could have and I tell myself that out loud to convince myself that I was a great parent.
    My children acknowledge what I did for them, but have turned it around on me saying that they won’t feel guilty because I did without and even make me feel stupid for giving so much. I have never asked for guilt, not even appreciation. But I think my daughters have found it easier to live without me, than to feel whatever they are feeling.
    So I tell myself I did the best I could with what I knew. Saying it out loud, helps convince me.

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